Olympic figure skating champs making Grand Prix debuts in Finland
Hanyu, Zagitova both competing in series' third stop
If this seems like a new stop on the Grand Prix of Figure Skating circuit, well, it is.
After China informed the International Skating Union of its decision to not host its annual Grand Prix, figure skating's governing body awarded this week's event to Helsinki.
China's loss is Finland's gain. This is shaping up to be an interesting event, with two reigning Olympic champions making their Grand Prix season debuts.
You can watch all the action live on CBCSports.ca beginning Friday at 9 a.m. ET.
No Canadians are competing this week (many took to the ice last week at Skate Canada), but there's still plenty to look forward to. Here's a breakdown of what to expect in each competition:
Men: Will Hanyu be at his best?
The men's event is of particular interest to me, with two-time Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu facing off against Toronto training mate Juhnwan Cha of South Korea. The two last met at September's Autumn Classic, where Cha took top spot in the free skate and second overall, just behind Hanyu.
Hanyu is occasionally known for not being his strongest self in the early part of the season. He's not alone in that regard. China's Boyang Jin is a two-time world bronze medallist who can be brilliant or struggling, depending on the day. The same applies to Czech skater Michal Brezina, whose first Grand Prix outing this season earned him a silver medal. It remains to be seen who will rise to the occasion in Finland.
Women: Zagitova is the real deal
It's clear now: Olympic champion Alina Zagitova is no flash in the pan. With the exception of a fifth-place finish at the 2018 world championships, where she was suffering from exhaustion, Zagitova has won every event she has entered from December 2016 until now. This includes claiming the 2017 junior world championship and the 2018 Olympic title.
I see Zagitova's biggest threat coming from Skate America silver medallist Kaori Sakamoto. The two talented women have shared podiums before, with Zagitova taking gold to Sakamoto's bronze at the 2016 Junior Grand Prix Final and the 2017 junior worlds.
Pairs: Russians step up
I have my fingers crossed that 2018 junior world champions Daria Pavliuchenko and Denis Khodykin of Russia can make an easy transition to the senior ranks. It's not that I expect them to finish on the podium, but I always like having a peek into the future, especially at the start of a new Olympic quadrennial.
I do, however, expect fellow Russians Natalia Zabiiako and Alexander Enbert to climb the top step in Helsinki. Poised and well-trained, with a silver medal as part of the Olympic team event in 2018 and a fourth-place finish at the 2018 worlds, Zabiiako and Enbert are the team to beat.
Italians Nicole Della Monica and Matteo Guarise should also challenge for the podium. Della Monica and Guarise trailed Zabiiako and Enbert by less than two points at worlds in March, finishing in fifth place, and will make closing the gap between them the goal.
Ice Dance: Stepanova and Bukin no ordinary team
The two strongest teams in the ice dance field are both looking for the same thing: more international recognition and the chance to move up the ranks. At last year's worlds, Alexandra Stepanova and Ivan Bukin of Russia finished in seventh place and I expect them to lead the competition in Helsinki.
Their closest rivals are the Italian team of Charlene Guignard and Marco Fabbri, who finished in ninth place at worlds in March of 2018. My impression of the Italians' improvement in the off-season was confirmed by their silver medal at Skate America.
But Stepanova and Bukin are a strong team with a sizzling free dance that, when compared to the Italians' conventional choreography, is anything but ordinary.
Pj's gold-medal picks
Men: Yuzuru Hanyu (Japan)
Women: Alina Zagitova (Russia)
Pairs: Natalia Zabiiako and Alexander Enbert (Russia)
Ice Dance: Alexandra Stepanova and Ivan Bukin (Russia)